Hard Times: Theme Analysis
Head versus Heart
Hard Times shows the inadequacy of an approach to life that emphasizes only the human intellect at the expense of the imagination and the heart. The character who most embodies the false approach is Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind worships facts and figures and prides himself on being very practical. He thinks that the only things valuable in life are those that can be objectively measured. He believes that human behavior can be shaped for the better by the rational application of practical knowledge. Gradgrind refuses to accept the validity of "fancy" or imagination; only practical things matter, and he puts his faith in abstract theories rather than direct observation of how real people behave, and what their real needs are. In his satirical portrait of Gradgrind, Dickens is taking aim at what he saw as the underlying principles operating in the industrial England of his time. It was a lop-sided approach to human life that denied some of the basic needs of human beings.
The qualities of imagination and heart are found in the circus folk that Gradgrind despises. Sissy Jupe in particular embodies the values of a heart-centered life. It is for that reason that she does not thrive in Gradgrind's school. Louisa is another victim of Gradgrind's repressive philosophy. She grows up emotionally stunted because she has not been allowed to develop her natural qualities of heart and imagination. The philosophy that acknowledges the value only of the intellect leads to impoverished, inadequate lives.
Another of Dickens's purposes in Hard Times was to attack the conditions of life in England's industrial cities. His fictional town of Coketown was in fact modeled on Manchester, in northern England. Towns such as these helped to produce the wealth that made England the foremost industrial power in the mid-nineteenth century, but the cost in human happiness was great. In Coketown, the needs of the factories dominate everything else. The town is an unnatural place, awash in industrial pollution, an "ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in" (Book 1, chapter 10). The factory hands work long hours in oppressive and dangerous conditions, and they live in cramped, unsanitary houses. Their lives are monotonous; every day is exactly like every other day, just as all the houses and streets look alike. In Coketown, there is a strict uniformity in everything. The workers have little time off to relax and enjoy themselves.
Dickens also wanted to expose the bad state of relations between factory employers and their employees. His sympathies are clearly with the workers, as his portrait of Stephen Blackpool, the honest factory hand, shows. Dickens also believed that employers showed little if any interest in the welfare of their employees and often regarded them with contempt. In the novel, this kind of employer is represented by Bounderby, who gets rich on what the factories produce but has a low opinion of the workers, even though he does not bother to get to know any of them at a personal level.
Although Dickens presents the problems of industrialism and industrial relations very acutely, he does not propose any solutions. Stephen Blackpool's comment that the bosses should simply treat their employees better, remembering that they are real people with real feelings, strikes many critics as inadequate, given the vastness of the industrial machine, the continual need for profits, and the disparity in power between employers and employees. The obvious solution, that workers should organize collectively in trade unions to protect their interests, was not one that Dickens embraced. In Hard Times, his portrait of the trade union, led by the fiery Slackbridge, is not an attractive one. Slackbridge himself is an unpleasant character, and the workers are all too ready to exert a tyranny of their own when they collectively shun Stephen Blackpool.
Dickens also wanted to attack the failings of education and the wrong-headedness of the prevailing educational philosophy. He believed that many schools discouraged the development of the children's imaginations, training them as "little parrots and small calculating machines" (Dickens used this phrase in a lecture he gave in 1857). Nor did Dickens approve of the recently instituted teacher training colleges. These had been set up in the 1840s, after the British government acknowledged the need to raise the standard of education in schools. The first graduates of these training colleges began teaching in 1853, a year before the publication of Hard Times. M'Choakumchild, the teacher in Gradgrind's school (which was a non fee-paying school that catered to the lower classes), is Dickens's satirical portrait of one of these newly trained teachers.
Many educators at the time shared Dickens's view of what was wrong with the schools. They believed there was too much emphasis on cramming the children full of facts and figures, and not enough attention given to other aspects of their development.